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Chris McCarthy, Nova Scotia Researcher, Quits Decade-Long Search For Ghost Cougar

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HALIFAX — After 10 years of patiently waiting for Nova Scotia's ghost cougar to appear, a determined researcher working in the dark forests of Kejimkujik National Park is calling it quits.

The elusive cougar has long been a source of intrigue and myth in Nova Scotia, and even inspired an episode of the Trailer Park Boys.

But Chris McCarthy's decade-long quest has failed to turn up any evidence that eastern cougar still roams the big park in western Nova Scotia.

"We haven't had any success in detecting any, and so after a decade we think we've put enough effort into it for now," says McCarthy, the park's manager of resource conservation.

cougar
The creature even inspired an episode of Trailer Park Boys. (Photo: Getty)

McCarthy says there's been hundreds of sightings across the province, and in neighbouring New Brunswick, over the years. But a cougar hasn't been trapped, hit by a car or shot in the province since the late 1930s.

"We've had no definitive proof in Nova Scotia of cougars being here for quite a few years."

McCarthy's study involved travelling to remote corners of the 380-square-kilometre park, where scratching posts were baited with jugs containing a liquid that smelled like cougar urine. Barbed wire and Velcro strips were used to snag hair samples.

The traps collected plenty of hair, but none from a cougar.

"It would have been nice to get a hit," McCarthy says. "That would be a rare opportunity."

"We've had no definitive proof in Nova Scotia of cougars being here for quite a few years."

Even though the research led nowhere, he says he was stunned by the level of interest in the project.

"It is such a magnificent beast and people's curiosity is raised by things that are extremely rare. And it did exist here at one time, so the possibility is always there."

To be sure, the eastern cougar remains a source of intrigue in the Maritimes, where sightings continue to come in from remote campsites, lonely dirt roads and the sprawling backwoods.

House cats, lynx and bobcats are often mistaken for cougars.

"Unless you have a size reference next to it, it's kind of tough," says McCarthy.

"Great danes from behind really look like cougars when you see them walking away at a distance."

As well, paw prints left in the snow by bobcats and lynx can begin to look like impressions left by a larger cougar once they start to melt and spread.

"It is such a magnificent beast and people's curiosity is raised by things that are extremely rare. And it did exist here at one time, so the possibility is always there."

The most credible sightings typically prompt speculation about escaped pets or zoo animals. 

And biologists have collected evidence to suggest that the western population of cougars — known as mountain lions in the United States — is pushing eastward. 

In 2011, a young male cougar travelled about 3,200 kilometres from South Dakota through Minnesota, Wisconsin and New York before being killed on a Connecticut highway.

In 2003, officials at Fundy National Park in New Brunswick said two hair samples collected from a cougar-scented trap tested positive. DNA analysis showed one of the cougars appeared to be of North American descent, while the other was South American, suggesting it was an escaped pet.

"It can happen," says McCarthy. "But the possibility of (a pet cougar) actually breeding and surviving in this neck of the woods would be slim."

The federal Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada says it doesn't have enough data to say whether the eastern cougar is endangered or extinct.

Last June, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed removing the eastern cougar from the endangered species list, saying they have likely been extinct for at least 70 years.

At the time, the service has said recent sightings in the northeastern United States were all believed to be migrating western mountain lions, Florida panthers or escaped pets.

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